wild talents

Charles Fort (1874 – 1932) was an American writer and researcher into anomalous phenomena (e.g. UFOs, ghosts, telepathy).

Today, the terms Fortean and Forteana are used to characterize various such phenomena.

Fort was born in in Albany, New York, of Dutch ancestry. He had two younger brothers, Clarence and Raymond. His grocer father was something of an authoritarian: Many Parts, Fort’s unpublished autobiography, relates several instances of harsh treatment – including physical abuse – by his father. Some observers (such as Fort’s biographer Damon Knight) have suggested that Fort’s distrust of authority has its roots in his father’s treatment. In any case, Fort developed a strong sense of independence in his youth. As a young man, Fort was a budding naturalist, collecting sea shells, minerals, and birds. Described as curious and intelligent, the young Fort did not excel at school, though he was considered quite a wit and full of knowledge about the world – yet this was a world he only knew through books.

So, at the age of 18, Fort left New York on a world tour to ‘put some capital in the bank of experience.’ He travelled through the western United States, Scotland, and England, until falling ill in Southern Africa. Returning home, he was nursed by Anna Filing, a girl he had known from his childhood. They were later married in 1896. Anna was four years older than Charles and was non-literary, a lover of films and of parakeets. She moved with her husband to London for two years where they would go to the cinema when Charles wasn’t busy with his research. His success as a short story writer was intermittent between periods of terrible poverty and depression. In 1916, an inheritance from an uncle gave Fort enough money to quit his various day jobs and to write full time. In 1917, Fort’s brother Clarence died; his portion of the same inheritance was divided between Charles and Raymond.

Fort wrote ten novels, although only one, ‘The Outcast Manufacturers’ (1909), was published. Reviews were mostly positive, but the tenement tale was commercially unsuccessful. In 1915, Fort began to write two books, titled ‘X’ and ‘Y,’ the first dealing with the idea that beings on Mars were controlling events on Earth, and the second with the postulation of a sinister civilization extant at the South Pole. These books caught the attention of writer Theodore Dreiser, who attempted to get them published, but to no avail. Disheartened by this failure, Fort burnt the manuscripts, but was soon renewed to begin work on the book that would change the course of his life, The Book of the Damned (1919) which Dreiser helped to get into print. The title referred to ‘damned’ data that Fort collected, phenomena for which science could not account and was thus rejected or ignored. Fort’s experience as a journalist, coupled with high wit egged on by a contrarian nature, prepared him for his real-life work, needling the pretensions of scientific positivism and the tendency of journalists and editors of newspapers and scientific journals to rationalise the scientifically incorrect.

Fort and Anna lived in London from 1924 to 1926, having moved there so Charles could peruse the files of the British Museum. Fort lived most of his life in the Bronx. He was, like his wife, fond of films, and would often take her from their Ryer Avenue apartment to the nearby movie theater, and would always stop at the adjacent newsstand for an armful of various newspapers. Fort frequented the parks near the Bronx where he would sift through piles of his clippings. He would often ride the subway down to the main New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue where he would spend many hours reading scientific journals along with newspapers and periodicals from around the world. Fort also had a small circle of literary friends and they would gather on occasion at various apartments, including his own, to drink and talk which was tolerated by Anna. Theodore Dreiser would lure him out to meetings with phony telegrams and notes and the resultant evening would be full of good food, conversation and hilarity. Charles Fort’s wit was always in evidence, especially in his writing.

His books earned mostly positive reviews, and were popular enough to go through several printings, including an omnibus edition in 1941. Suffering from poor health and failing eyesight, Fort was pleasantly surprised to find himself the subject of a cult following. There was talk of the formation of a formal organization to study the type of odd events related in his books. Clark writes, ‘Fort himself, who did nothing to encourage any of this, found the idea hilarious. Yet he faithfully corresponded with his readers, some of whom had taken to investigating reports of anomalous phenomena and sending their findings to Fort.’ Fort distrusted doctors and did not seek medical help for his worsening health. Rather, he focused his energies towards completing ‘Wild Talents,’ his fourth and final book on anomalous phenomena. He died, most likely of leukemia, and his more than 60,000 notes were donated to the New York Public Library.

Fort’s relationship with the study of anomalous phenomena is frequently misunderstood and misrepresented. For over thirty years, Charles Fort sat in the libraries of New York City and London, assiduously reading scientific journals, newspapers, and magazines, collecting notes on phenomena that lay outside the accepted theories and beliefs of the time. Fort took thousands of notes in his lifetime. In his short story ‘The Giant, the Insect and The Philanthropic-looking Old Gentleman,’ published many years later for the first time by the International Fortean Organization in ‘INFO Journal: Science and the Unknown.’ Fort spoke of sitting on a park bench at The Cloisters in New York City and tossing some of his into the wind.

This short story is significant because Fort uses his own data collection technique to solve a mystery. He marveled that seemingly unrelated bits of information were, in fact, related. He went back to collecting data and taking even more notes. The notes were kept on cards and scraps of paper in shoeboxes, in a cramped shorthand of Fort’s own invention, and some of them survive today in the collections of the University of Pennsylvania. More than once, depressed and discouraged, Fort destroyed his work, but always began anew. Some of the notes were published, little by little, by the Fortean Society magazine ‘Doubt’ and, upon the death of its editor Tiffany Thayer in 1959, most were donated to the New York Public Library where they are still available to researchers of the unknown.

Understanding Fort’s books takes time and effort: his style is complex, violent and poetic, profound and occasionally puzzling. Ideas are abandoned and then recalled a few pages on; examples and data are offered, compared and contrasted, conclusions made and broken, as Fort holds up the unorthodox to the scrutiny of the orthodoxy that continually fails to account for them. Pressing on his attacks, Fort shows what he sees as the ridiculousness of the conventional explanations and then interjects with his own theories.

Fort suggests that there is, for example, a Super-Sargasso Sea (another dimension that things can be spontaneously teleported to) into which all lost things go, and justifies his theories by noting that they fit the data as well as the conventional explanations. As to whether Fort believes this theory, or any of his other proposals, he gives us the answer: ‘I believe nothing of my own that I have ever written.’ Writer Colin Wilson suspects that Fort took few if any of his ‘explanations’ seriously, and notes that Fort made ‘no attempt to present a coherent argument.’ Moreover, Wilson opines that Fort’s writing style is ‘atrocious’ and ‘almost unreadable.’ Wilson also compares Fort to Robert Ripley, a contemporary writer who found major success hunting oddities, and speculates that Fort’s idiosyncratic prose might have kept him from greater popular success.

Jerome Clark writes that Fort was ‘essentially a satirist hugely skeptical of human beings’ – especially scientists’ – claims to ultimate knowledge.’ Clark describes Fort’s writing style as a ‘distinctive blend of mocking humor, penetrating insight, and calculated outrageousness.’ Wilson describes Fort as ‘a patron of cranks’ and also argues that running through Fort’s work is ‘the feeling that no matter how honest scientists think they are, they are still influenced by various unconscious assumptions that prevent them from attaining true objectivity. Expressed in a sentence, Fort’s principle goes something like this: People with a psychological need to believe in marvels are no more prejudiced and gullible than people with a psychological need not to believe in marvels.’

Despite his objections to Fort’s writing style, Wilson allows that ‘the facts are certainly astonishing enough.’ Examples of the odd phenomena in Fort’s books include many of what are variously referred to as occult, supernatural, and paranormal. Reported events include teleportation (a term Fort is generally credited with coining); poltergeist events; falls of frogs, fishes, inorganic materials of an amazing range; unaccountable noises and explosions; spontaneous fires; levitation; ball lightning (a term explicitly used by Fort); unidentified flying objects; unexplained disappearances; giant wheels of light in the oceans; and animals found outside their normal ranges (e.g. phantom cat). He offered many reports of out-of-place artifacts (OOPArts), strange items found in unlikely locations.

He also is perhaps the first person to explain strange human appearances and disappearances by the hypothesis of alien abduction and was an early proponent of the extraterrestrial hypothesis, specifically suggesting that strange lights or object sighted in the skies might be alien spacecraft. Fort also wrote about the interconnectedness of nature and synchronicity (meaningful coincidences . His books seem to center around the idea that everything is connected and that strange coincidences happen for a reason. Many of these phenomena are now collectively and conveniently referred to as Fortean phenomena (or Forteana), whilst others have developed into their own schools of thought: for example, reports of UFOs in ‘ufology’ and unconfirmed animals (cryptids) in ‘cryptozoology.’ These ‘new disciplines’ are not recognized by most scientists or academics.

Frequently in his writing, Fort posits a few basic points that were decades ahead of mainstream scientific acceptance, and that are frequently omitted in discussions of the history and philosophy of science. He often notes that the boundaries between science and pseudoscience are ‘fuzzy’; the boundary lines are not very well defined, and they might change over time. He also points out that whereas facts are objective, how facts are interpreted depends on who is doing the interpreting and in what context. Fort insisted that there is a strong sociological influence on what is considered ‘acceptable’ or ‘damned.’ Though he never used the term ‘magical thinking,’ Fort offered many arguments and observations that are similar to the concept: he argued that most, if not all, people (including scientists) are at least occasionally guilty of irrational and ‘non scientific’ thinking.

Fort points out the problem of underdetermination (that the same data can sometimes be explained by more than one theory). Similarly, writer John Michell notes that ‘Fort gave several humorous instances of the same experiment yielding two different results, each one gratifying the experimenter.’ Fort noted that if controlled experiments – a pillar of the scientific method – could produce such widely varying results depending on who conducted them, then the scientific method itself might be open to doubt, or at least to a degree of scrutiny rarely brought to bear. Since Fort’s death, scientists have recognized the ‘experimenter effect,’ the tendency for experiments to tend to validate given preconceptions. Robert Rosenthal has conducted pioneering research on this and related subjects.

There are many phenomena in Fort’s works which have now been partially or entirely ‘recuperated’ by mainstream science: ball lightning, for example, was largely rejected as impossible by the scientific consensus of Fort’s day, but is now receiving new attention within science. However, many of Fort’s ideas remain on the very borderlines of ‘mainstream science,’ or beyond, in the fields of paranormalism and the bizarre. This is unsurprising, as Fort resolutely refused to abandon the territory beyond ‘acceptable’ science. Nonetheless, later research has demonstrated that Fort’s claims are at least as reliable as his sources. In the 1960s, American writer William R. Corliss began his own documentation of scientific anomalies. Partly inspired by Fort, Corliss checked some of Fort’s sources and concluded that Fort’s research was ‘accurate, but rather narrow’; there were many anomalies which Fort did not include in his books.

Many consider it odd that Fort, a man so skeptical and so willing to question the pronouncements of the scientific mainstream, would be so eager to take old stories – for example, stories about rains of fish falling from the sky – at face value. It is debatable whether Fort did in fact accept evidence at face value: in many instances within his books, Fort notes that he regarded certain data and assertions as unlikely, and he additionally remarked, ‘I offer the data. Suit yourself.’ In Fort’s books, it is often difficult to determine if he took his proposals and ‘theories’ seriously, but he did seem to hold a genuine belief in the presence of extraterrestrial visitations to the Earth.

The theories and conclusions Fort presented often came from what he called ‘the orthodox conventionality of Science.’ On nearly every page, Fort’s works have reports of odd events which were originally printed in respected mainstream newspapers or scientific journals such as ‘Scientific American,’ ‘The Times,’ ‘Nature,’ and ‘Science.’ Time and again, Fort noted, that while some phenomena related in these and other sources were enthusiastically accepted and promoted by scientists, just as often, inexplicable or unusual reports were ignored, or were effectively swept under the rug. And repeatedly, Fort reclaimed such data from under the rug, and brought them out, as he wrote, ‘for an airing.’ So long as any evidence is ignored – however bizarre or unlikely the evidence might seem – Fort insisted that scientists’ claims to thoroughness and objectivity were questionable.

It did not matter to Fort whether his data and theories were accurate: his point was that alternative conclusions and world views can be made from the same data ‘orthodox’ conclusions are made from, and that the conventional explanations of science are only one of a range of explanations, none necessarily more justified than another. In this respect, he was far ahead of his time. In ‘The Book of the Damned’ he showed the influence of social values and what would now be called a ‘paradigm’ on what scientists consider to be ‘true.’ This prefigured work by American philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn decades later. The work of Paul Feyerabend (also a philosopher of science) could also be likened to Fort’s.

Another of Fort’s great contributions is questioning the often frequent dogmatism of mainstream science. Although many of the phenomena which science rejected in his day have since been proven to be objective phenomena, and although Fort was prescient in his collection and preservation of these data despite the scorn they often received from his contemporaries, Fort was more of a parodist and a philosopher than a scientist. He thought that far too often, scientists took themselves far too seriously, and were prone to arrogance and dogmatism. Fort used humor both for its own sake, and to point out what he regarded as the foibles of science and scientists. Nonetheless, Fort is considered by many as the father of modern paranormalism, not only because of his interest in strange phenomena, but because of his ‘modern’ attitude towards religion, 19th-century Spiritualism, and scientific dogma.

Regarding Darwin and evolution, Charles Fort wrote: ”Darwin & Evolution’ In mere impressionism we take our stand. We have no positive tests nor standards. Realism in art: realism in science – they pass away. In 1859, the thing to do was to accept Darwinism; now many biologists are revolting and trying to conceive of something else. The thing to do was to accept it in its day, but Darwinism of course was never proved: The fittest survive. What is meant by the fittest? Not the strongest; not the cleverest – Weakness and stupidity everywhere survive. There is no way of determining fitness except in that a thing does survive. ‘Fitness,’ then, is only another name for ‘survival.’ Darwinism: That survivors survive.’

Fort’s work has inspired very many to consider themselves as Forteans. The first of these was the screenwriter Ben Hecht, who in a review of ‘The Book of the Damned’ declared ‘I am the first disciple of Charles Fort… henceforth, I am a Fortean.’ Among Fort’s other notable fans were John Cowper Powys, Sherwood Anderson, Clarence Darrow, and Booth Tarkington, who wrote the foreword to ‘New Lands.’ Precisely what is encompassed by ‘Fortean’ is a matter of great debate; the term is widely applied from every position from Fortean purists dedicated to Fort’s methods and interests, to those with open and active acceptance of the actuality of paranormal phenomena, a position with which Fort may not have agreed.

Most generally, Forteans are interested in unexplained phenomena in wide-ranging fields, mostly concerned with the natural world, and have a developed ‘agnostic skepticism  regarding the anomalies they note and discuss. For Mr. Hecht as an example, being a Fortean meant hallowing a pronounced distrust of authority in all its forms, whether religious, scientific, political, philosophical or otherwise. It did not, of course, include an actual belief in the anomalous data enumerated in Fort’s works. In Chapter 1 of ‘Book of the Damned,’ Charles Fort states that the ideal is to be neither a ‘True Believer’ nor a total ‘Skeptic’ but ‘that the truth lies somewhere in between.’

The Fortean Society was founded at the Savoy-Plaza Hotel in New York City in 1931 by his friends, many of whom were significant writers such as Theodore Dreiser, Ben Hecht, Alexander Woollcott, and led by fellow American writer Tiffany Thayer, half in earnest and half in the spirit of great good humor, like the works of Fort himself. Fort, however, rejected the Society and refused the presidency which went to his close friend writer Theodore Dreiser; he was lured to its inaugural meeting by false telegrams. As a strict non-authoritarian, Fort refused to establish himself as an authority, and further objected on the grounds that those who would be attracted by such a grouping would be spiritualists, zealots, and those opposed to a science that rejected them; it would attract those who believed in their chosen phenomena: an attitude exactly contrary to Forteanism. Fort was not a joiner of established groups and, perhaps, it is ironic that many such Fortean groups have been established.

A periodical, ‘Fortean Times,’ was first published in 1973 as a proponent of Fortean journalism, combining humor  skepticism  and serious research into subjects which scientists and other respectable authorities often disdain. The International Fortean Organization (INFO) was formed in the early 1960s by brothers, the writers Ron and Paul Willis, who acquired much of the material of the original Fortean Society which had grown silent by 1959 with the death of Tiffany Thayer. INFO publishes the ‘INFO Journal: Science and the Unknown’ and organizes the FortFest, the world’s first, and continuously running, conference on anomalous phenomena dedicated to the spirit of Charles Fort.

More than a few modern authors of fiction and non-fiction who have written about the influence of Fort are sincere followers of Fort. One of the most notable is British philosopher John Michell who wrote the Introduction to ‘Lo!’ published in 1996. Michell says ‘Fort, of course, made no attempt at defining a world-view, but the evidence he uncovered gave him an ‘acceptance’ of reality as something far more magical and subtly organized than is considered proper today.’ Stephen King also uses the works of Charles Fort to illuminate his main characters, notably ‘It’ and ‘Firestarter.’ In ‘Firestarter,’ the parents of a pyrokinetically gifted child are advised to read Fort’s ‘Wild Talents’ rather than the works of baby doctor Benjamin Spock.

Loren Coleman is a well-known cryptozoologist, author of ‘The Unidentified’ (1975) dedicated to Charles Fort, and ‘Mysterious America,’ which Fortean Times called a Fortean classic. Indeed, Coleman calls himself the first Vietnam era C.O. to base his pacificist ideas on Fortean thoughts. Jerome Clark has described himself as a ‘skeptical Fortean.’ Mike Dash is another capable Fortean, bringing his historian’s training to bear on all manner of odd reports, while being careful to avoid uncritically accepting any orthodoxy, be it that of fringe devotees or mainstream science. Science-fiction writers of note including Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein, and Robert Anton Wilson were also fans of the work of Charles Fort. Fort’s work, of compilation and commentary on anomalous phenomena reported in scientific journals and press, has been carried on very creditably by William R. Corliss, whose self-published books and notes bring Fort’s collections up to date with a Fortean combination of humor, seriousness and open-mindedness. Mr. Corliss’ notes rival those of Fort in volume, while being significantly less cryptic and abbreviated.

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